Background Introduction of artemisinin combination therapy (ACT) has boosted interest in parasite-based malaria diagnosis, leading to increased use of rapid diagnostic tests (RDTs), particularly in rural settings where microscopy is limited. With donor support, national malaria control programmes are now procuring large quantities of RDTs. The scarcity of health facilities and trained personnel in many sub-Saharan African countries means that limiting RDT use to such facilities would exclude a significant proportion of febrile cases. RDT use by volunteer community health workers (CHWs) is one alternative, but most sub-Saharan African countries prohibit CHWs from handling blood, and little is known about CHW ability to use RDTs safely and effectively. This Zambia-based study was designed to determine: (i) whether Zambian CHWs could prepare and interpret RDTs accurately and safely using manufacturer's instructions alone; (ii) whether simple, mostly pictorial instructions (a "job aid") could raise performance to adequate levels; and (iii) whether a brief training programme would produce further improvement. Methods The job aid and training programme were based on formative research with 32 CHWs in Luangwa District. The study team then recruited three groups of CHWs in Chongwe and Chibombo districts. All had experience treating malaria based on clinical diagnosis, but only six had prior RDT experience. Trained observers used structured observation checklists to score each participant's preparation of three RDTs. Each also read 10 photographs showing different test results. The first group (n = 32) was guided only by manufacturer's instructions. The second (n = 21) used only the job aid. The last (n = 26) used the job aid after receiving a three-hour training. Results Mean scores, adjusted for education, age, gender and experience, were 57% of 16 RDT steps correctly completed for group 1, 80% for group 2, and 92% for group 3. Mean percentage of test results interpreted correctly were 54% (group 1), 80% (group 2), and 93% (group 3). All differences were statistically significant (p < 0.05). Conclusion Manufacturer's instructions like those provided with the RDTs used in this study are insufficient to ensure safe and accurate use by CHWs. However, well-designed instructions plus training can ensure high performance. More study is underway to determine how well this performance holds up over time.